Being stuck in walls, missing animations and doors that don’t open are pretty much going to be the worst parts of the zombie apocalypse; that is if we believe “No More Room in Hell”… But having been hooked on it for the past few weeks I’ve been able to look past the cosmetic flaws and appreciate this gritty and often punishing 1st person co-op zombie experience.
‘Free to play’ and ‘fan-made’ are phrases that are rapidly losing their stigma thanks to some excellent games and mods. My recent descent into the early Aperture Laboratories with “Portal Stories: Mel” added further depth and content to a ‘sacred’ game series and proved that ‘fan-made’ does not necessarily equate to ‘poor-quality’. It was with this mindset that I approached NMRIH.
Now I’m past the 36 hour mark, have rented a server to play with friends at our Wednesday evening gaming sessions and still interested to the point that breakfast conversation is often a post-game breakdown of what went wrong the night before. Yes, I’ve been grabbed and pulled into this grim and futile setting. With a name taken straight from George A. Romero’s “Dawn of the Dead” it’s unsurprising how much inspiration NMRIH takes from the classic “Dead” trilogy, to the point that two of the levels are modeled directly on the movie locations.
Romero’s work depicts an overwhelmingly futile scenario; it’s not the rebuildable zombie apocalypse of “World War Z” or even “28 weeks” later, Romero shows us humanity’s last. Individuals might survive each increasingly desperate chapter in diminishing numbers, however the viewer knows it’s only a matter of time. This feeling is captured by NMRIH. Not the fun run-and-gun of L4D, the isolated incident of “Dead Island” or the over the top hack-and-slash of “Dead Rising; This is slow, deliberate and bleak; each scenario starts in some kind of weary refuge complete with the telltale signs of the days or weeks that you’ve been here, curled up in blankets, picking through old packets of food, even trying to fend off boredom for an hour or two with a game of backgammon. The start point of the ‘Brooklyn’ scenario is particularly disturbing, a jail cell in an over-run police station, as the game starts and you scout around the cell looking for whatever meager items you can grab, take a moment to imagine the days your character has had to endure watching the zombies shuffling back and forth infront of the bars taunting you with your inevitable fate.
On paper the game structure is standard enough; two games modes, boarding yourself into a property in a wave-structured survival mode, or the more engaging objective driven scenarios. The objective missions have dominated most of my playtime, that’s not to say that the survival is the weak partner, I simply prefer to be moving through a level trying to accomplish something.
The first breath of fresh (or more appropriately rotting fetid) air are the multiple level paths. Each scenario has an element of randomisation which includes the standard item/weapon/ammo drops, but also aspects of the path through the level and how the protagonists overcome or circumnavigate each of the obstacles in their way. Although these variations in mission path are often minor detours, they do help to reduce the game ‘autopilot’ effect which can come from repeatedly playing the same scenario. Likewise the weapon & ammo situation helps breath fresh life into the tired zombie formula; the game contains the standard melee options (necessary to conserve the meagre ammo supplies) and a limited inventory space governed by relative item size. What is refreshing is the attention to detail in terms of ammo; this is not L4D’s “one ammo-pile fits all” arrangement. Each gun remains true to its real-life calibre, players end up making decisions to carry ammo for weapons that they ‘may’ find later and excitement is transformed to disappointment when that box of 45’s you just fought to get turns out to be .358’s. Voice chat between players is essential as you take momentary breathers to discuss who needs what calibre ammo, if you can afford to unload and discard a weapon that you have just found or if you should take the flashlight or box of .22’s. The more I experience these mildly tense interactions, the more I’m convinced that this is what we would experience in a survival situation with friends; a series of quick panicked pushes forward, confused searching & scouting areas trying to work out which way to go and numerous conversations about who should carry what.
Dev team’s goal to create a “realistic” co-op zombie shooter has been well balanced against the entrenched conventions inherent with an FPS. For example the player HUD is completely free of artificial text or aiming crosshair, yet the player instinctively right-clicks for ironsight aiming to take headshots (I didn’t notice that the crosshair was missing until it was pointed out to me). Likewise, managing your health is a familiar yet complicated affair; whilst you do have a ‘numerical health value’, it’s not shown to you, the only indication of deteriorating health is a gradual loss of colour which can be restored partially by using a first aid kit. Bleeding can be stemmed with bandages, and once ‘infected’ your option is typically staving it off with medication or using that last bullet so that you don’t attempt to have a post-death snack on one of your teammates (very… very rarely you can find a cure).
It’s a step-backward from recent zombie games, but that’s not such a bad thing. Combat is a necessity not the goal. Cooperation is encouraged, not from ‘rescuing’ mechanics, but from recognising that we are stronger as a group. It feels like survival, even dashing across the street past a handful of shambling walkers is panicky and making it down a corridor is hard work.
It’s free to play on steam and not a new release, but if you have a good group of co-op friends and can overlook the graphical flaws and occasional glitches it’s worth the effort.